And then this last little blighter jumps up and bites you on the nose. Never mind the story itself - how on earth are you going to tell it? One narrator? Is one enough? Which character should be the narrator? First person? Third? Stream of consciousness? Do you really trust a stream to keep track of all their names?
Many a great tale has been delayed because the author couldn't work out who was telling the tale.
Hence why I am doing this post today. In a vain attempt to aid all writers in the struggle over viewpoint, I'm going to pin down every option I can think of, from the norms to the nonsensical. Think of it as a metaphorical recipe- pick whichever options suit your proverbial supper. I don't recommend putting it on your actual supper. It tastes a bit like rhubarb crumble with jalapeno peppers and aubergine juice.
AISLE ONE: THE BASICS
Third Person, Past Tense, Limited Narrator - This is probably the most common form of narrative strand, and also the easiest to follow. Written in past tense, we follow a single character's actions throughout the narrative, from an "over their shoulder" perspective. E.G. - Bob was walking to the shop to buy some eggs when, suddenly, his chihuahua exploded after eating a radioactive fish finger. Startled, he fell on his backside and let out a cry as the pavement bit him cruelly on the backside.
Pros: Its popularity probably lies in its simplicity. While we are encouraged to engage and relate to the narrator, we also have the advantage of distance from the tricky stream-of-consciousness elements that a first person narration can bring up. Third person also allows for greater description of setting, and physical appearance of other characters (first person narrators often don't have great reason to describe characters they are familiar with). Allowances for short deviations into explanatory passages from the author also tend to flow better from a third person perspective.
Cons: Being unable to deviate from a single point of view could be limiting to a complex, multi-stranded plot, and if the story contains a wide variety of characters with very important roles, the readers might feel they are missing out on exciting events that happen away from the narrator. Giving a character a distinctive "voice" is also more difficult, as there are few available contrasts, except via dialogue.
First Person, Past Tense, Limited Narrator - Another popular form of narration, especially in thrillers and some romance novels. Written in past tense, but using the "I" voice, as if the character vocally recounting the events of the story. E.G. - I could hardly believe it, the chihuahua's body was levitating in the air! I ran to Bob's side and thrust my chicken drumstick into his hand, hoping he could use it as a weapon if need be.
Pros: First person allows for a more personal relationship with the narrator than third, especially if the story is written in the form of a diary, or a series of letters. The character's thoughts and feelings are made more explicit, and the potential for an individual "voice" and personality to come through is huge, and relatively easy to exploit (though one does have to be careful not to get too lost in the narrator's thoughts and forgetting the story). Also, the ability to hide elements of the story from both character and reader encourages a more gradual revelation, and further engagement from the reader as they learn along with the protagonist.
Cons: Potential for confusion is high. Having a single character try and explain a complex situation to a reader can end in messy transgressions, and if the reader does not find the character engaging and interesting, they may give up on the story if they know this is the only voice they will hear for 800+ pages. As with its third person counterpart, too, a complex story with a wide cast can also be inhibited by the one-man-band style of narrative.
AISLE TWO: INTERESTING ALTERNATIVES
Omniscient Narrator - Here, the reader sits on a proverbial flying carpet, viewing all the characters' thoughts and feelings in the same narrative strand. Mostly applicable to third-person narration. E.G - The chihuahua's body, enraged at the fate it had suffered, launched itself upon its terrified owner. Bob shrieked and hurled himself instinctively behind Brenda. Luckily, she was feeling braver than him, and brandished her handbag fiercely. The chihuahua shuddered in fear and shrank back, plotting its next move.
Pros: The potential to introduce, develop and work with multiple characters is huge. Here, a reader has potential to look over characters and plot elements that they find less interesting in favour of other events and / or people they prefer. Characters' motives and feelings can be clarified, and the relationships between different people are clearer. Explanatory digressions flow near seamlessly into the narrative as, being detached from any particular viewpoint, an impersonal passage is less noticeable.
Cons: It's hard. Really really hard. Even with one or two characters, keeping an even balance between their thoughts and viewpoints in the same passage is a logistical nightmare. Complications can also arise when characters are separated, or come together in a group, as one is not sure who to follow and when. Potential to hide characters' motives and plot elements from the readership is also more difficult. Potential for characters' individuality to come through in the writing is also seriously limited.
Rotating Narrators - Each chapter or paragraph, the viewpoint rotates to a different character.
Pros: Applicable to both third and first person plots, rotating viewpoints can encompass a large cast whilst also providing contrasts that can highlight their individual quirks and traits. Favourite characters can be more closely tracked, while ones that an individual is less fond of are easier to skim over and / or ignore, depending how much you genuinely wish a painful end on them. Complicated plots can be brought together in strands by different characters, making for a more intriguing story while still retaining the personal relationship / ability to hide key plot points for the author
Cons: Choosing which characters should be narrators is a hard job - especially if your plot has a habit of mutating on you, and people end up in different roles to those you planned. It's easy to develop George R. R. Martin syndrome and give a viewpoint to the world and its 49 cats because you're sure they'll be useful later. It also makes killing off characters hard, as you lose their strand in the narrative, and often can't be sure whether to replace them with another narrator or not. The story can also end up a lot longer than it needs to be, as individuals have to be rounded off in some way or another (provided you don't pick them all off one by one . . . which is an interesting option, if a little psycopathic.)
Present Tense - Instead of telling the tale as a finished event, this time we see the story "as it happens". E.G. - Brenda leaps into action, swatting the chihuahua around the head with her purse. However, the blow bounces off and sends her crashing on top of Bob with a sickening crunch that perfectly mimics the noise that chihuahua is making as it slowly decomposes stinkily in mid-air.
Pros: I think "The Hunger Games" proved how tense a present tense narrative can be. Increased immediacey heightens the stakes, as we cannot be sure that there is, theoretically, any end to tale beyond the last page of the book. We are drawn deeper than ever into the character's immediate thoughts and feelings, literally as they happen, and with no endpoint in sight, our emotions can be merrily shredded by any sadistic entity who likes throwing spanners in the works of poor figurative creations.
Cons: Some people are put off just by the fact that present tense can be slightly awkward to read. Digressions for explanatory passages are practically impossible, and if you have more than one narrator in this setup then the timefram can get wobblier than a fairground ride that hasn't seen repairs in a long while. Potential for foreshadowing is also seriously restricted.
AISLE THREE: AND IF YOU'RE FEELING ADVENTUROUS . . .
Second Person Narrator - Here, we are told the story as if we are being talked to by another figure. E.G. - You gasp as your companion lands on top of you, crushing the air from your long-suffering lungs. She's heavier than you expected, and you're pretty sure she's broken something - namely the eggs in your shopping bag.
Pros: Anyone who's ever dressed up as their favourite movie character knows how awesome it is to play the hero - and here, you literally are! Never mind a narrator, here it's the reader who is the center of attention, the chosen one, the hope of all peoples, the kicker of backside. The story is entirely yours to discover as you go along.
Cons: This viewpoint only really works in second person, and I've never seen it used anywhere effectively outside of a Goosebumps "choose your own death" style book. It's awkward to read, there's little room for exploring setting or relationships with other characters that aren't pre-determined, and a complicated story will only serve to confuse all involved.
"Fragment" Narrative - A personal term for a story that really has no distinctive narrator at all, but seems to be played out in the mindset of another observing party. E.G. - It was strange, what happened next. Amidst dreaming spires and confusion, the half-comic, half-tragic battle continued. Such is the struggle of life; a neverending whirl of emotion and panic all bottled up and falling through an endless spacial abyss.
Pros: If your project is reaching for some metaphysical truth or deeper message, a narrative like this can be fascinating. Opportunity for abstract language and expression abounds, and everything can contain a deeper meaning with greater ease than if you were in a more conventional narrative frame. Explanative digressions? Who needs those. This sort of story doesn't even have to make sense if it doesn't want to.
Cons: The optional nature of sense can be horribly confusing. Anyone who's read a William Faulkner novel will know how hard a really fragmented and abstract narrative is to read. Unless you're writing for a highbrow audience, or aiming for a deeply philosophical tone, this confusing bundle of madness is probably best left alone.
And what about all of you? What's your favourite sort of narrative style? Have you ever tried any of these up here? What happened? What would you recommend to other writers when helping to choose their narrative styel? Leave a comment and let us know!
~ Charley R